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Restaurant Seat Giveaway Too Generous

Wed, 06/22/2022 - 12:16


The East Hampton Town Board did seem to be concerned at the time, but when it gave restaurants the go-ahead to provide outdoor table service it may have unleashed a wave of unintended consequences. Their idea was to be generous and to allow establishments to continue the alfresco dining that proved very popular during the worst of Covid-19. In a three-year trial run, restaurants now can add seats equal to their outdoor maximum capacity, as long as they meet certain zoning standards. For example, tables and chairs cannot be put on adjacent properties, or on sidewalks, without additional consideration. Restaurants on residentially zoned sites will be granted only up to three-quarters of their indoor-seat count outside. That is way too much.

For the town employees expected to enforce the rules in practice, the board has created an impossible situation. Because restaurants will not generally be shuffling tables and chairs in and out with changes in the weather, most will end up buying a second set of furniture suitable for leaving exposed to the elements. The net effect will be that some eateries could have, say, capacity for 100 seated guests in their interior dining rooms, and that same number — 100 seated guests — on the lawn or patio.

Restaurants are supposed to leave an inside table vacant for each one that is occupied outside. The effectiveness of a self-policing honor system is doubtful. It is safe to say that for some restaurants, the temptation to cheat will be too great. Imagine for a minute a stressed-out reservation host trying to explain to would-be eaters that, though they can clearly see empty tables inside, they cannot be seated. The Yelp reviews would be withering.

The board’s poorly thought out generosity will undoubtedly be a bonus for restaurants, but a problem for the public, notably in terms of parked cars. In many locations, vehicles already overflow from restaurants’ parking lots alongside roads and into residential areas. More diners will mean more wastewater flow, something Town Hall also cares about. Outdoor dining will mean more damaging sky-glow light, as well as noise, both from music and loud conversations. And, though the outdoor dining test is supposed to last only three years, things like this have a way of becoming forever. Already one town board member has spoken in favor of making the seating giveaway permanent. Will some restaurants bend the rules? Of course. Will they get caught? Unlikely.

Town enforcement personnel now have the job of counting guests to make sure that restaurants are in compliance. This is in addition to all the other things they are asked to do, including health and safety, housing, zoning, environmental issues, noise, lighting, zoning, and permits. At present, the Ordinance Enforcement Department consists of a director and six inspectors. Given the numbers, at least a few restaurant operators will gamble this summer that the likelihood of an officer stopping by on any given night is minuscule. It is unfair to the department that the town board chose to increase its already-massive workload without providing funding for the necessary additional personnel.

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